Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee.
I am undertaking a study of Charlotte Mason’s twenty principles, and in doing so I seek to relate her ideas to Gospel truths. Here is a rough, rambling copy and paste of my thoughts, with scripture, quotes from Charlotte, and quotes from Latter-day Saint general authorities.
As I explore this principle I find myself crossing over into some of the other twenty principles, since the first truly is related to all of her educational principles, but I take no effort to separate them here for now. Also, being such a rough gathering, a collage of sorts, I make no effort to cite things in a formal manner, so my apologies.
William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”
The first principle of Charlotte Mason’s philosophy is: children are born persons. Admittedly I am ignorant in wholly understanding her faith as a member of the Anglican Church and all it entailed; no doubt her faith had a lot of influence upon her philosophy, but I am not here to explore the history of the principle, but rather to connect it to my own faith. Charlotte was onto something much, much deeper; there lies an understanding that, at birth, despite having a brain far from maturity, there is in the precious infant a mind complete, a person, sacred.
I am anxious to bring before teachers the fact that a child comes into their hand with a mind of amazing potentialities: he has a brain too, no doubt, the organ and instrument of that same mind, as a piano is not music but the instrument of music.
CM Vol. 6, p. 38
And yet, where does this mind come from?
The doctrine is simply this: life did not begin with mortal birth. We lived in spirit form before we entered mortality. We are spiritually the children of God.
This doctrine of premortal life was known to ancient Christians. For nearly five hundred years the doctrine was taught, but it was then rejected as a heresy by a clergy that had slipped into the Dark Ages of apostasy.
Once they rejected this doctrine, the doctrine of premortal life, and the doctrine of redemption for the dead, they could never unravel the mystery of life. They became like a man trying to assemble a strand of pearls on a string that was too short. There is no way they can put them all together.
Why is it so strange a thought that we lived as spirits before entering mortality? Christian doctrine proclaims the Resurrection, meaning that we will live after mortal death. If we live beyond death, why should it be strange that we lived before birth?
Elder Boyd K Packer, “The Mystery of Life”
This first principle has struck a chord with many Latter-day Saint homeschoolers, myself included, due to our belief in the premortal life. Indeed knowing this truth “assembles a strand of pearls” without the confusion.
We were once spirits dwelling with a loving Heavenly Father; we lived and learned in a spiritual existence before this temporal one. This doctrine reveals a more complete picture of the human soul. “An old soul” is more than a mere expression. Our earthly existence as persons is tethered to a personal history with God, the Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ. Our memory of the premortal life is dimmed by the veil, a God-given forgetfulness, and yet any mother holding a newborn babe knows a heavenly being rests in her arms. The infant is no meager “bag of guts”—a term I heard in college during a lecture in feminist studies—we are indeed more than a bag of guts; we are not born oysters, or buckets to be filled!
From Ambleside Online: “Children are born persons – they are not blank slates or embryonic oysters who have the potential of becoming persons. They already are persons.”
Although we do not remember it, we came here with a spiritual education hidden away in our minds. We came here with our own premortal, spiritual history, with relationships built in the heavenly realm, and an abundance of experience in making choices for ourselves. Agency has been with us since the beginning.
Our personal mission began long before we arrived on the earth. In the premortal life, we were “called and prepared” to live on the earth at a time when temptations and challenges would be the greatest. This was “on account of [our] exceeding faith and good works” and because of our “having chosen good.” We understood our Father’s plan and knew that it was good. We not only chose it, but we defended it. We knew that our earthly missions would be fraught with temptation, challenges, and hardship, but we also knew that we would be blessed by the fulness of the gospel, living prophets, and the guidance of the Holy Ghost. We knew and understood that our success on this earth would be determined by our worthiness and purity.
Sister Elaine S. Dalton
We made the choice to come to Earth, to gain a body, and to continue our birthright of agency. Through the teachings of the Holy Ghost, we have opportunity to grow and show our faith in Christ.
Premortality is not a relaxing doctrine. For each of us, there are choices to be made, incessant and difficult chores to be done, ironies and adversities to be experienced, time to be well spent, talents and gifts to be well employed. Just because we were chosen “there and then,” surely does not mean we can be indifferent “here and now.” Whether foreordination for men, or foredesignation for women, those called and prepared must also prove “chosen, and faithful.”
In fact, adequacy in the first estate may merely have ensured a stern, second estate with more duties and no immunities! Additional tutoring and suffering appears to be the pattern for the Lord’s most apt pupils. Our existence, therefore, is a continuum matched by God’s stretching curriculum.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell, Premortality, a Glorious Reality
22 Now the Lord had shown unto me, Abraham, the intelligences that were organized before the world was; and among all these there were many of the noble and great ones;
23 And God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born.
As educators the very notion of having to teach noble and great ones in these latter-days is nothing short of daunting. How humbling it is to accept the call to teach a person, an intelligence who once made many great and noble decisions in the premortal life. And yet Charlotte gives us inspired guidance on how to proceed. She acknowledges that ourselves, teachers alone, are quite incapable of nourishing the mind of a child for she recognizes the sacredness of each person. More on that in a bit. In speaking of a teacher standing before a class, she writes:
He knows that children’s minds hunger at regular intervals as do their bodies; that they hunger for knowledge, not for information, and that his own poor stock of knowledge is not enough, his own desultory talk has not substances enough; that his irrelevant remarks interrupt a child’s train of thought; that, in a word, he is not sufficient for these things.
Vol. 6, p. 44
Charlotte details how the teacher is not enough. And I am sure most mothers might think to themselves, well, if the teacher is not enough, then what about me? Who am I to teach these noble ones?
This is the first step: the step towards humility. In fact I believe this can empower any mother to teach her own children, regardless of her own education. First, the child hungers for knowledge and knowledge is to be found within books. In the Charlotte Mason world we call it: spreading the feast. Later in exploring a different principle we will discuss the topic of living books, but here is what I am getting at: when we understand the sacredness of a person, and understand that his noble intelligence was created before he ventured to earth to gain a body, we understand that our responsibility lies in providing an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life in which the Holy Spirit may readily be the student’s teacher. It does not let the educator off the hook; it is indeed what brings us to our knees to humbly submit ourselves to be better instruments in God’s hand, and to not hinder the Holy Ghost from doing what needs to be done.
As much as we hear the term “living books” and “spreading the feast” in Charlotte Mason circles, we also hear again and again that an education is the science of relations—it is all about the connections. I believe these connections indeed come from the Holy Ghost. Those a-ha! moments of brightness, light bulbs of enlightenment, these are spiritual gifts. After which, it is the child’s responsibility to do what he will with those ideas (I will pipe in here to link to an excellent article by Karen Glass about how much the student retains and uses the ideas he receives, which is a fantastic read.) As homeschooling mothers, we must increase our faith in the Holy Ghost as the true teacher within our homes, and yes, this pertains to every subject, including math. For simply, who invented math? If we are to become more like our Savior, Jesus Christ, we must care about the things that He created under the direction of our Father.
So how do we provide an atmosphere, a discipline, and a life that allows the Holy Ghost free reign to teach? Perhaps in one home it means explaining a little less in lessons. Perhaps in another home it means not burdening a child with busy work. Perhaps in another it means relying more on prayer than on outside influences. Basically, don’t get in the way!
Having virtually no quantitative skills, I was seldom if ever able to help our children with math and scientific subjects. One day our high school daughter Nancy asked me for “a little help” regarding a Supreme Court case, Fletcher v. Peck. I was so eager to help after so many times of not being able to help. At last a chance to unload! Out came what I knew about Fletcher v. Peck. Finally my frustrated daughter said, “Dad, I need only a little help!” I was meeting my own needs rather than giving her “a little help.”
We worship a Lord who teaches us precept by precept, brethren, so even when we are teaching our children the gospel, let’s not dump the whole load of hay.
Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s, “Remember How Merciful the Lord Hath Been”
We must be willing to be educators that have faith in the Lord’s timetables and to not rush the Holy Ghost’s work, or be impatient with Him when it takes longer for our children to understand a new concept. We must trust as we put in the daily work required of us, that the Holy Ghost in turn is doing the work according to His plan. Though we may wrestle with our own infirmities as human educators, the Holy Ghost is not crippled by sin and mortal flesh. He does not tire; He does not yell; He does not preach unnecessarily.
5 And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things.
As we are able to take what we learn with us into the eternities, knowledge itself, all of it, must be considered a gift of the Spirit. When we neglect this truth, or simply forget it, we in turn neglect the sacredness of persons. What knowledge you gain becomes embedded into your spirit. It is not the human teacher, flawed and inadequate that performs this embedding of knowledge to the soul. Dry facts are not pinned to the eternal mind by way of cramming for a standardized test. The Spirit performs many great things via living ideas, not so much with fill-in-the-blank worksheets, and multiple choice questions!
When I was younger, my grandfather gave me a blessing. He blessed me that I would “continue my ministry here that I had so nobly performed there.” Now, if I had a ministry in the premortal existence, then so did you. It is not by chance that you were born now, in this season of the world’s history. Each one of you was a valiant and noble woman in your premortal life.
From Carol B. Thomas’, “Understanding Our True Identity”
With the veil we are unable to understand the scope and the gravitas of our children’s ministry in the premortal life. What a leap of faith we must take! We know not of the great things the child did then, nor do we know of the great things he will do in his future. This means we must lay a living feast of ideas in the present, a “broad and generous” curriculum that will give the child much to draw from to move forward in his own ministry on earth.
“That his mind is the instrument of his education and that his education does not produce his mind.”
Charlotte Mason, Vol. 6
Charlotte sought to relate the possibilities of a young child, to establish proof that the mind first exists though the brain still has to grow and develop—the mind is already there, a soul, old and immeasurable.
21 And now, verily I say unto you, I was in the beginning with the Father, and am the Firstborn;
22 And all those who are begotten through me are partakers of the glory of the same, and are the church of the Firstborn.
23 Ye were also in the beginning with the Father; that which is Spirit, even the Spirit of truth;
Doctrine and Covenants, Section 93
I testify to you that God has known you individually, brethren, for a long, long time. He has loved you for a long, long time. He not only knows the names of all the stars. He knows your names and all your heartaches and your joys! By the way, you have never seen an immortal star; they finally expire. But seated by you tonight are immortal individuals—imperfect but who are, nevertheless, “trying to be like Jesus!”
Elder Neal A. Maxwell’s, “Remember How Merciful the Lord Hath Been”
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ:
4 According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love:
5 Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will,
6 To the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the beloved.
We are all born persons, children of God.